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Calling his rookie season "a great learning experience," Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel said Tuesday he still hopes to make his NBA debut in one of the team's final five regular-season games but realizes the team's cautious approach with him has been for the best.
"Obviously I do want to play," Noel told reporters in Philadelphia. "I'm a 19-year-old who's been sitting down on the sideline really wanting to get out there and show my abilities and to be able to play ball.
"It's been tough, but it's something we had to do."
Noel suffered a torn ACL in February 2013 as a member of the Kentucky Wildcats. He was taken with the sixth overall pick by the New Orleans Pelicans in the NBA draft, then shipped to the 76ers in exchange for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday.
Noel was cleared for "limited on-court work" in January, but Philadelphia at the time said he still needed to meet "several benchmarks" in order to play for the team "to ensure a long, productive NBA career."
On Tuesday, Noel deemed his knee "100 percent," saying he's gained over 3 inches on his vertical leap since before the surgery and overall is "stronger and moving around well." He's also overhauled his shot with the help of 76ers coach Brett Brown
"I am very encouraged," Noel said. "Through the past year since I had my injury, I have pushed myself through thick and thin and I've had some struggles and I've just stayed with it.
"I definitely worked my butt off to get where I am at now."
In March, Noel sent out a cryptic "4-4-14" tweet, which he confirmed Tuesday was his target date for a return.
Noel still hopes to suit up for the 76ers, who own the second-worst record in the NBA at 17-60, but understands the thinking of general manager Sam Hinkie with regards to his comeback.
"I definitely understand where the GM is coming from, the risk and the reward," Noel said. "I've been very eager because of my competitivenes, but I do understand."